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March 2013

Easter with a small "e"

Sunday, I hosted an Easter gathering with about a dozen members of my extended family. It was a lot of work, and I’m too tired to write the post I was thinking about—the one about the chilled pea soup with tarragon that opened the meal—so that will have to wait until later in the week. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it, and you’ll be glad I did. The soup is a cool and creamy taste of spring. It’s a pea soup for folks who don’t like pea soups.

Organizing a meal for a dozen people is a bit like starting a small company, putting on a minor musical, and invading a tiny republic—all at the same time. It costs money, there’s always a bit of drama, someone will get wounded, but hopefully no one dies. In this case, the meal (which was this olive-stuffed lamb) was a joint effort, with my friend Zoe bringing the dessert (a luscious scented apple cobbler that perfumed the house as we ate), and Santa Maria prepping many of the vegetables.

One of them was asparagus. We had other things to do during the day, including attending a church service, so Santa Maria got it ready in the morning.  She came up with neat way to keep the vegetable from wilting during the day. She snapped off their stems and stuck them like daffodils in baking dish full of water. I just loved the way they looked, and I snapped a photo of them in the middle of cooking the meal.

Her system worked like a charm, and when the time for cooking them rolled around, they were ready to go. Pulling off a dinner party of this size without losing your mind takes a lot of planning. And improvising. Santa Maria pulled of both at the same time with the asparagus. At some point, I’ll write about how to best plan for a dinner party, but now. I’m too tired. There’s no amount of planning that can reduce the amount of work, short of planning to go to someone else’s house.

But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to gather my family together in my house for a few hours, and contemplate the arrival of spring. My siblings and their spouses represent most of the major religious traditions of the Western World, including agnosticism, and because I knew we would be such a diverse group, and because I wanted to find some meaning in the day, I asked everyone to bring a quote about rebirth and renewal to share at the table.

At the end of the meal, I put the kids and nephews on a Wallace & Gromit video, and we started to read and recite our quotes. One person quoted from Robin Williams, another from George Lucas. A brother-in-law read from Shakespeare, and Santa Maria read from Thomas Mann. My sister recited an E.E. Cummings poem, and I decided to call our gathering an easter meal with a small “e.”

Simple Tomato Bulgur Soup

A week or so ago, before the Stay at Stove Dad household became a breeding ground for noroviruses, rhinoviruses, and God knows what else has been making us ill, we had some friends over for dinner. I remember those halcyon days and sleep-filled nights with a reverence reserved for religious feasts, despite the difficulties I had that afternoon in cooking the lamb.

I wanted to start that meal with a soup, and I had a particular one in mind—my Alaskan Black-Cod Chowder—but there was some reason I couldn’t make it. At this point, trying to recall what picayune problem prevented me from doing so is akin to looking through a haze of battlefield smoke and trying to read my adversary’s diary. It just can’t be done.

Whatever it was that kept me from the Alaskan Black-Cod Chowder (an absence of leeks, I think it was), steered me right into something new. For reasons of economy—I wanted to stretch that lamb so it lasted me into the following week (these days, I eat leftovers for lunch, that is when I’m not eating leftovers for dinner)—and I really needed to make a soup. So, I decided to improvise.

Earlier this month, in the New York Times, Martha Rose Shulman published a recipe for Winter Tomato Soup with Bulgur, and that’s what I used as a base for my new soup. Her idea of putting bulgur in the soup resonated with me, because it is something I do when I make my Turkish Lentil Bulgur Soup. In that recipe, the bulgur is browned before the lentils and other ingredients are added, so that’s what I did when I made my new soup. Browning the bulgur gives it a nutty, deep flavor. My mouth always starts to water as this step finishes up. It brings a real sweetness out, too.

If I could take an idea from my Turkish Lentil Bulgur Soup, surely, I figured, I could take an idea from my Alaskan Black-Cod Chowder—namely, start with bacon (always a good idea, in any event). I built a base with bacon and onions and sharpened it with a chili pepper. Then I browned the bulgur, added the tomatoes and tossed in some fresh parsley and a bit of dried rosemary. The result was rich and hearty, and it made a fine start to a fine meal.

Simple Tomato Bulgur Soup

  • Olive oil
  • 2 slices of bacon, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 chili pepper
  • 1/2 cup bulgur
  • 2 to 4 garlic cloves, to taste, minced
  • One 28-ounce can tomatoes, run through a blender (I use a hand one)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar*
  • 5 cups water (more to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, or to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a heavy soup pot over medium heat and add the onion, chili pepper, and bacon and cook, stirring often, until the onion is very soft but not browned, at least ten minutes.

Add the bulgur and cook, stirring, until it is brown and fragrant.

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, about another minute more.

Add the can of tomatoes, tomato paste and sugar and bring to a simmer.

Cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down slightly, about 10 minutes.

Add the water and rosemary, and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 to 45 minutes, until the bulgur is soft and the soup thick and fragrant.

Add pepper to taste and adjust salt.

*I don’t usually cook with sugar, but I was working off of Shulman’s recipe, so I went with it. I think next time, I won’t include it.



Chicken Soup Time, If You Know What I Mean

We’ve been lucky this winter, and none of us have been sick, but the bill for our good fortune just came due. Nina vomited last Thursday. Pinta had a stomachache on Friday. Santa Maria was waylaid with a fever and congestion, and then all hozzawatza-broke loose Saturday night when most everyone was very ill.

I say most everyone, because, fingers-crossed, I seem to have escaped the worst of it. Or have I? I’m not sure. There’s a scene in the “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which we watched Sunday afternoon while convalescing, in which the Fox and his family and all the other animals are flooded out of the tunnel in which they’ve been hiding. As the scene unfolds, you wonder—will they make it out alive?  I feel a bit the same way, wondering: will that norovirus or whatever the hozzawatza has been wrecking havoc on my family have a turn with me?

So I haven’t been cooking much. Santa Maria made her signature chicken soup a few days ago, and we’ve been living off it. I recommend it, whether you are sick or not: 

Chicken Soup

  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups brown rice
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 chili pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • One three-to-four-pound chicken
  • 1 lemon, halved and juiced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • pepper to taste

        Put the rice on to cook. Add a bay leaf or two and salt if desired.

        Heat some olive oil in a tall stock pot.
        Add the onions, carrots, and celery.
        Saute until the onions are translucent.
        Add the garlic and chili pepper.
        Saute until the garlic is soft.
        Rinse and add the whole chicken to the pot. 
        Add enough water to the pot to cover the chicken.
        Add the bay leaves, lemon halves and juice, and other spices.
        Cover and bring to a boil.
        Reduce to a simmer.
        Cook for about an hour, or until the chicken is cooked through.
        Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon. 
        Remove the lemon halves, chili pepper, and bay leaves.
        Pick the meat from the chicken and return to the soup. 
        Stir in the rice.

        Notes: Remove the chili pepper earlier if you want the soup less spicy. The soup freezes well.

Keep Cooking, Things Will Be Fine: Or How to Make a Broiled Leg of Lamb

If you are new to cooking, let me tell you this: if you keep at it, you will get to a point where you are comfortable trying new things, and you will be happy with the results. And if you are doing an old thing that doesn’t go the way you planned, your experience will give you the confidence to make the right decisions.

I mention this because realized that I might be taking for granted how long I’ve been cooking, and how relatively easy it is for me. I want to encourage you to keep trying. I’m not making any grand claims to greatness, but the food I make around the house—the food I call quite proudly “Rustic Cuisine”—makes people happy, keeps them healthy, and doesn’t break the bank. That’s enough for me.

I had friends over for dinner the other night, and they swooned over the lamb I roasted, loved the mashed potatoes, and adored the broccoli rabe. I was glad to see my friends, and that we all had a good time. They thought it was a big spread, but it was really quite easy, maybe an hour’s work. When I’m at the stove for meals like this, I think of myself as channeling some distant grandmother (probably from someone else’s family) who would whip up something like this a hundred years ago without batting an eye. Of course, life expectancy was shorter back then, but that’s another story for another time.

Usually, a leg of lamb is very easy. Throw some olive oil on it, a lot of salt, a bit of rosemary, and broil it—either on a grill or in the oven—until the thickest part of the meat is about 130 degrees. Because a typical leg of lamb has thick portions and thin portions, some of the meat will come out rare, and the rest of it will come out medium. I’ve made this recipe dozens of times, but things didn’t go as planned on Sunday.

That day, the lamb, which I had taken out of the freezer a day earlier, was not completely defrosted when I started to cook it. It was also a uniformly thick piece of meat, because the other thing about a leg of lamb is that one can feed about a thousand people, and if you only have five hundred for dinner, you’ll have way too much. So this piece of lamb was something I had cut off a larger piece, and frozen for a later date. I didn’t realize until it was time to cook it that it was a very thick piece.

After I had it under the broiler for the requisite time, it was crusty and delicious looking on the outside, but the interior of the meat was still cold. I could tell because my instant-read thermometer was acting like it was broken—the needle wouldn’t move.

I moved the meat down in the oven—so it wouldn’t burn under the fierce broiler— but it still wasn’t coming up to temperature properly. I tested the thermometer in one corner of the meat, and found that that piece—which was a bit thinner—was at the right temperature. But the rest of the leg seemed cold. I hate overcooked meat, especially overcooked lamb, so I was starting to get nervous.  Was it cooking or not? What was going on inside that meat?

I relied on my experience. I cut off the part of the meat that seemed done, and I let it rest on a plate. Even if it wasn’t quite ready, it would finish cooking as it sat there. The rest of the leg, the very thick part, had a great crust on the outside, but I needed to find out what was going on inside the leg. I hacked it open lengthwise, and sure enough, the interior was still raw. Now what to do?

I cut it open fully, so I had two thinner pieces, each of which was cooked nicely on one side, and still raw on the other. I moved the rack in the oven back up close to the broiler, and I put the raw side of the meat under the heat for a few minutes, until it started to brown, but not get crispy. I didn’t want to cook it all the way through, because then it would be overdone.

As soon as it was a bit brown, I took it out, and let it sit on a platter near the oven, where it was warm. In the end, the meat was fine. It was a bit more cooked than I might have liked, but there were enough medium to rare pieces to make everyone happy.

Broiled Butterflied Leg of Lamb

  • 1 butterflied leg of lamb (which means the bone has been cut out)
  • 1 tablespoon or more of olive oil (I never measure)
  • A good shake of dried rosemary for each side of the meat
  • Salt and pepper, a good deal of it.

Rub the meat with the olive oil, rosemary, and salt and pepper. If you have time, set it aside for an hour before cooking to bring it up to room temperature.

Layer a backing sheet with aluminum foil (this will make the cleanup much easier) and place the meat on it.

Cook under a high broiler, very close to the flame (top rack of the oven) for about fifteen minutes on one side, or until it is crispy and brown.

Turn the meat over and cook about another ten to fifteen minutes on the other side, until that part of the  meat is crispy and brown.

At this point, check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. If you have a whole leg, with some thick parts and some thin parts, get the meat at its thickest up to about 130 degrees.

This may require you putting it back under the broiler for another ten or so minutes. Ovens vary. If you do this, flip the meat before returning it to the oven.

Once the meat is at the proper temperature, let it rest about ten minutes before slicing and serving.

Notes: This is excellent on a charcoal or gas grill (and the clean up is even easier!) And legs of lamb can run three to six pounds, so they vary quite a bit. To determine how much to cook for how many, allow six to eight ounces per adult, and do the math. Also, a bit of minced garlic can be added to the rub, and if you can plan ahead, marinating the meat in the oil, salt, rosemary (fresh is fine, too) and garlic, is a nice thing to do.

Image courtesy of Zazzle. 

How to Cut Up a Chicken, Otherwise Known as Life is What Happens When You’re Busy Cooking Other Dishes

There’s a saying that I can’t help thinking these days: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Often attributed to John Lennon—it is in the lyrics to his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)—the phrase is actually much older. According to the site The Quote Investigator, it dates back to Allen Saunders, a cartoonist from the middle of the last century. As I’m partial to cartoonists and drawing, that makes me happy.

I mention this because as I look around me, and as I go from planning each week’s meals and shopping, and cooking, I realize that life is rushing by. I have things I want to get done—from going swimming and biking with my girls to updating the look and functionality of this blog to publishing another book—that I just can’t seem to get around to doing.

That said, there are a few accomplishments I’m proud of. The smallest of these came to me on Friday, when I came across a video on the web that solved a vexing problem—how to cut up a chicken.

I’m very good with a knife, because I grew up working in a retail fish market, and I know how to fillet and bone all kinds of fish. I struggle a bit when it comes to poultry and meat, but I’m always confident that I’ll know where to cut and how. But cutting up a whole chicken has stumped me. I can get about three-quarters of the way through the bird, but taking out the backbone was always a problem.

I couldn’t figure out where to cut the bird, no matter how many books I consulted. I love cutting up whole birds because it’s a way to save money. When it came to dealing with that backbone, all I did was rip and tear and pull until I had it off.

Then I saw this video from Ian Knauer and Gourmet, and on Saturday night I used what learned to cut up a whole bird to make my Chicken, Tomato, Lemon, Potato, and Olive dish. Basically, all you need to do is follow the lines of fat and that will tell you exactly where to cut. The video has all the details.

I found the video through Twitter, by following You Fed a Baby Chili? which led me to Cook Fearless, and as soon as I get the chance, I’m going to update my blog roll to include those sites. They are really great.

Here’s the how-to video on cutting up a chicken, via Cook Fearless. Enjoy!


Grilled Cheese and a Poor-Man's Croque-Monsieur

One of the go-to weekend lunches around the Stay at Stove Dad household is the old grilled cheese. I love them because they’re quick and easy, and my girls love them because, well, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese.

They like them open faced, with cheddar, and it takes about ten minutes (sometimes less) under the broiler to get them finished. Do you really want me to tell you how? Okay, I will: lay the bread on a cookie sheet, put slices of cheddar on top, and run under the broiler until melted. There, you’re done. You could probably cook it faster than it takes to read this post.

Sometimes, I’ll play around a bit with the grilled cheese, and Nina will ask for a Croque-Monsieur. She had one a while back at my workplace cafeteria, and she loves them. The version I make is a bit of a lie. It’s more a poor-man’s Croque Monsieur than anything else, but she still likes it.

I basically make a closed-faced grilled cheese and put some frizzled ham (ham that I’ve fried up in a pan) in the center of it. I used to make it with Gruyère, but I’ve since started economizing, and have resorted to using cheddar.

A true Croque-Monsieur is a thing of beauty. A crunchy, savory, and succulent sandwich. It's mouthwatering. Am I using too many adjectives? I wonder, but writing this entry is making me hungry for one right now, and while hunger may be a good seasoning, it’s not exactly an aid to thinking or writing.

The origins of the Croque-Monsieur are a good story, though. According to legend (and this French Food Site), “The Croque Monsieur, or “Crispy Mister,” appeared on Parisian café menus in 1910. The original Croque Monsieur was simply a hot ham and Gruyere cheese sandwich, fried in butter. Some believe it was accidentally created when French workers left their lunch pails by a hot radiator and came back later to discover the cheese in their sandwiches had melted.”

Today, the Croque-Monsier is a bit more elaborate. Ina Garten, of the Food Network, has a tasty recipe here, and the online recipe site Epicurious has one here. They both involve making sauces, and with two kids running around that’s kind of a far-fetched idea for me. But you might feel differently. And if you’re looking for ways to spice up a plain, old grilled cheese, last month’s Food Network Magazine had fifty different ways to do so. 

How Many Burners Does a Man Need?

This weekend I realized why people have those fancy six-burner stoves—to impress their neighbors. But seriously, folks, this Sunday morning was the first time I can remember that I did so much cooking at the same time that I ran out of burners. Other people go to church--I go into the kitchen. My four-unit Jenn-Air just wasn’t enough. I had a tagine going, a Bolognese simmering, and a pot of black beans humming along, and I wanted to start my lentil-bulgur soup. That dish needs two burners to get going—one for the lentils proper and one for the base of the soup, and I was one burner short.

What did I do? I took the black beans off the heat and let them sit, and went on to make the soup. That was an easy decision, because most of the cooking that’s taking place with those black beans is really just driving water into the center of each bean (I never soak the beans first) and if the pot just sits there, the same thing keeps happening, only more slowly. Problem solved.

That little problem was nothing compared to what happened the day before. On Saturday—a day for me that involved getting up at 5:45 a.m. to take care of the weekly food shop, then doing some business in Manhattan in the morning before coming home to take the kids to swimming lessons in local high school, whose pool is in a heated basement that I swear must have been an inspiration for Dante.

No, my real problem started when I set out to make a simple dinner of coriander-and-cumin crusted pork chops, green beans, and my signature Thanksgiving (give thanks to Sam Sifton) corn bread. It was the cornbread that gave me conniptions.

Now, the thing about this cornbread is that is super easy, and super delicious—provided you get a few basic things right, such as the leavening. One time, in Pennsylvania with my inlaws, I completely forgot to put in the leavening, and the bread came out flat and heavy. It was like Southern matzo—yuch, as they might say.

Another time, Santa Maria made the cornbread, and she did it in a rush and she substituted baking soda for baking powder. It looked right that time, but tasted very strange—double yuck, as it were as baking soda is much stronger, and much more alkaline than baking powder. It had a bitter aftertaste that had us scratching our heads, until Santa Maria realized the error of her ways.

On Saturday, when I was trying to make the cornbread, I didn’t have enough baking powder. I was one tablespoon short, but Santa Maria came to the rescue. Somehow, she knew how to substitute one for the other. Here’s how she did it:

You’ll find various ratios on-line, but the one that worked best for us is mixing half baking soda and half cream of tartar.  For example, if you need to make one Tablespoon of baking powder, mix 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda with 1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar.

And now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, and consult a few other resources, I’ve since learned that baking powder is basically baking soda (an alkali) combined with an acid (typically cream of tartar), with a stabilizer and a moisture-absorber, such as cornstarch.

I also learned that many people combine the baking soda with the cream of tartar at a 1-to-2 ratio, and not a 1-to-1 ratio. At this moment, I can’t find a reputable source online to tell you what is correct, but I promise to look. Just know this—the way we did it Saturday worked out just fine.

So, more on the baking powder/baking soda substitution shortly, along with details on where cream of tartar actually comes from. I was surprised to learn. Do you know?

What Does It Mean to Be a Man?

I’ve seen all kinds of definitions of what it means to be a man, from being tough (Robert Mitchum) to being sensitive (Check out this Nick Lowe video ) to being a canine.

Now, for the benefit of anyone who might be wondering (women, young men, small terriers) I’ll tell you the number one thing about what it means to be a man. And it’s only because my biology prevents me from being thrown out of the fraternity that I can reveal the following:

We haven’t a clue about what it means to be one. There, I said it. It’s true. Trust me. We don’t ask for directions because we don't get lost. We never know we’re lost. So we don’t ask directions. If anyone you know denies this truth, consider them lost.

A lot of writers, musicians, artists, and adolescents have wrestled with this question over the years, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Confessions”) to Michel de Montaigne (he retired at 38!) to Philip Roth (my favorite: “My  Life as a Man”) and L. Rust Hills (check out “How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man”) and we can now add to that distinguished list the new magazine Kindling Quarterly.

More properly, Kindling Quarterly examines what it means to be a dad these days, something that’s no less confusing (trust me). The Kindling Quarterly is a handsome, perfect-bound, publication full of thoughtful essays. David Michael Perez and P. August Heffner, the founders, sent me a copy in the mail the other day, and I just started reading it last night.

I was drawn, quite naturally given my interest in food, cooking, and this blog, to the interview with Rohan Anderson, the man behind the blog Whole Larder Love. I might have had my head in a book for too long, because I somehow did not know about Anderson’s blog.

He’s the father of two young girls (sound familiar?) but he’s (how do I say this, ahem?) much more of a man than I am. He hunts, gathers, gardens, forages, and does everything pretty much damn well. He even published a book. Check it, and Kindling Quarterly out. Whether you are lost or not, they'll help you find your way. 

Party Planning: Freezer Lasagna!

This was a bit of a whirlwind weekend. We threw a party for Nina’s birthday, and we did it home style (big Shout out to Oriental Trading, for making the entertainment so easy—we did a carnival theme, and it worked out very well).

With all the party planning, hosting, and cleaning up to do, I didn’t do much cooking around the house. Still, we had to eat, and not being the sort to want to eat out right now, that meant doing the meal home style, too.

Knowing that I needed to conserve my energy for the party, I looked in the freezer for something. On Friday, I mentioned Bon Appetit’s tips for family dinner, and one of their recommendations was to learn to use the freezer. They are so right. If you stock it well, there will never be a day when you go hungry, or worse even, have to order from a take-out menu.

I was lucky to find a lasagna that Santa Maria had made a few weeks ago when she was out visiting her folks. Lasagna is a good dish for families because you can make a bunch at once, eat some that night, and then freeze the rest for another night when you are too tired to cook.

Lasagna is easy. I’m sure if you poke around the web, you can find specific directions, but I’m too tired to write out a proper recipe. Shout out to Oriental Trading, again, for making the party as easy as it was. (If you’re getting the sense that I’m punch-drunk right now, you’re not far off the mark—having kids and throwing a party is a bit like going twelve rounds with George Foreman).

So to make a lasagna, first find your spouse and ask him or her if he or she has one up his or her sleeve (or freezer), and if he or she does not, then do the following:

Boil up some pasta, and cook it to just this side of being done.

Sauté up some mushrooms, long strips of zucchini, and/or any other vegetable of your choice.

Make a pot of tomato sauce or open a couple of jars of your favorite commercial marinara.

Brown up some ground beef with a bit of garlic, or not.

Get a bunch of ricotta assemble thusly:


Bottom layer = sauce

Next layer = pasta

Next layer = cheese

Next layer = veggies/beef/or nothing

Next layer = sauce


Repeat until you’ve reached the top of your pan.


Cover with a layer of sliced mozzarella and some more sauce.


Bake at 350 for forty-five or so minutes, until the cheese is bubbly.




If you are making extra for freezing, use a foil pan and do all of the above (including cooking it). Let it cool, then cover with foil, and put in the freezer. When it is time to cook it, put it back in the oven, covered, for about one hour or so (depending on the size of your pan; a large pan may take longer), until it is heated through.